Breathe like Rickson.

Breathe like Rickson 

Images from Choke, The Incredible Hulk, and GracieMag.

Images from Choke, The Incredible Hulk, GracieMag, and


One of the most iconic images of the Choke documentary is Rickson Gracie’s breathing techniques. This documentary is a staple among grapplers. I personally remember the feeling of having seen it in Choke and then in The Incredible Hulk with Rickson teaching Edward Norton how to control his anger with his techniques. I was ecstatic.

Breathing is probably one of the most underestimated skillsets in wrestling, Jiu Jitsu, MMA, or any sport for that matter. Being from Bermuda and having a father that dabbled in amatuer freediving my interest in breath holding far outdates my athletic ventures.

Only recently has breathing practice and holding capacity been investigated for its effects on aerobic ability. It turns out that individuals who engage in these practices have greater lactic acid and CO2 thresholds as well as more efficient aerobic capacity. These individuals also have greater control over their heart rate (1,2).

So what on earth is Rickson doing? The most iconic images are of Rickson (and Kron) are of a display of what’s called Nauli and is an advanced yogic practice called a Kriya or internal cleaning exercise. Its purpose is to literally massage the organs and promote blood flow. I have a few years practicing this and can only roll vertically, side to side is even harder.



But let’s start with something a bit easier such as Pranayama. Pranayama, also a yogic exercise, is a set of breathing exercises and techniques used to enhance the efficiency of respiration and aid in stabilizing blood pressure. A common pranayama Rickson does is called Kapalabhati (COP-ALL-A-BAATI) and involves taking passive inhalations with strong exhalations contracting the lower abdomen with each breath. Warning-some of these exercises are humorous at first. Remember though no one is laughing at Rickson. Kapalabhati is shown below:

YT user vimalvyas

YT user vimalvyas

Another common pranayama exercise is called Bhastrika (BAS-TREEK-A)and involves taking forced inhalations with passive exhalations. Bhastrika is shown below:

YT user vimalvyas

YT user vimalvyas

And the last common Pranayama we will address is Anuloma Viloma which involves pausing your breathing and alternating the inhalations and exhalations with a x, 4x, 2x relationship rotating which side of the nose you breathe out of. Each x represents inhale time/inhale hold time/exhale time/exhale hold time. Usually, exhale hold time is 0, so it disappears from the line. Common ratios include 4seconds in one side of the nose, a 16 second hold, and an 8 second exhalation out of the other side of the nose breathing back in that same side to complete a set:


What is important is the proportion, not the seconds. It’s a bit too complicated to show in a .gif so here is a video on how to do it.

So now that you’re familiar with all of these exercises how do you breathe like a warrior? That brings us back to the freedivers, the athletes with the best lungs in the world. Here’s a routine from Eric Fattah, one of the best of them:


“First, Kapalabhati’ 60 breaths in a “fire breathing mode” (around 30 secs). rest 1 minute. Repeat this set 3 times.

Then, just one “Bhastrika” cycle

20 inhale/exhale cycles, full lungs, with active exhale and passive inhale. After that,

a 2:30 seconds breathold. After this, my resting heart rate sits somewehere between 40 and 50 bpms. Apnea induced bradycardia Then, anuloma viloma, which is a 1:4:2

(i.e: x seconds inhale, 4x seconds retention,2x seconds exhale) pattern alternating nostrils. I do 3 sets (very mild actually) of 5:20:10 or 4:16:8

After that, I feel my heart beating slow, but strong and my lungs feel very very elastic.

Then, I begin my run. Normally, as I’ve said, my HRM goes 10 beats down (which is a huge improvement) with same times.” (

So try the workout. You may want to start by halving all of the values as you’re likely not a freediver. I’ve only recently begun amalgamating my love of breath hold practice with my love of rolling and I find that I most certainly breathe easier and say much more relaxed while breathing. Some of the exercise will seem silly at first, but they’re nothing you can’t do in the waiting room before a fight, the locker room before a match, or the hotel before an IBJJF tournament.

Remember there’s an app for that. I Hold Breath is an application that creates breath hold charts and counts down for you based on your Personal Best breath hold time. There are multiple breathing workouts that you can do simply sitting in front of the TV. There are also a number of applications that allow you to check your heart rate using the flash on your smart phone. Take your HR before a workout and after. Then do the same on a day you’ve done some breathing exercise to see if it has change. Then, and maybe then, you’ll be able to breathe like Rickson.

1) “Breath-hold training of humans reduces oxidative stress and blood acidosis after static and dynamic apnea” Julia et al. (2003). Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology 137 Pg. 19-32.

2) “Apnea: A new training method in sport?” Lemaître et. al (2010). Medical Hypotheses 74 (2010) Pg. 413–415.


5 thoughts on “Breathe like Rickson.

  1. Maybe a bit too late to the comment thread, but this helped a lot. Did pranayama doe the dieat time a few weeks ago at a hindu temple and it’s been on my mind since. Also been looking for something that explained it and showed some pics. Also been interested in jiu jitsu for a while, looks like this will be a helpful blog to read through!

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